In quest of the jewel in the lotus

Tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana flourished in India from around the 5th century A.D. till the 12th century A.D. According to Vajrayana scriptures, Vajrayana refers to one of the three routes to enlightenment, the other two being Hinayana and Mahayana [1]. As its name suggests, Vajrayana relies heavily on the use of cryptic symbols and secret languages for instructions and is essentially ritualistic. A distinctive feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is ritual, which is used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations [2].

This, however, is not the subject of this blog. And the author, most certainly, is not an expert on or a follower of the subject.

This is a travelogue on my recent visit to three Tantric Buddhist sites in India. Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri. All of them in Orissa.

Road guide to the three sites

It is believed that Tantric Buddhism originated in Bengal and then spread to the north and the south spreading its roots deeper among the backward classes of the society wherever it went. Orissa was a major seat of Tantric Buddhism where it flourished under the patronage of Indrabhuti, the oldest known king of Sambalpur. The philosopher-king Indrabhuti became the source and inspiration for the adherents of Tantric Buddhist cults in Western Orissa [3].

Under such financial and intellectual patronage, a seat of Tantric Buddhist instruction came up in the Jajpur district of Orissa in around the 5th century A.D. Called Puspagiri Mahavihara, this Buddhist seat of learning flourished until the 11th century A.D. Puspagiri ranked along with Nalanda, Vikramshila and Takshila universities as one of the primary institutions of higher learning in ancient India.[4] The entire university was spread across three campuses atop the three hills of Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri and the ruins of the same have been recently excavated there. Mention has been made of this university by the famous Chinese traveller Xuan Zang (Hiuen Tsang), who visited India circa. 639 A.D., in his work entitled Si-yu-ki [5].

The advent of Islam in India and the subsequent overshadowing of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths in the country might have been instrumental in the slow decay of this mighty institution into its present state of rubble and debris. But thanks to the efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), its wonders are being unearthed and restored for the world to marvel at once again.

 

Ratnagiri    (Lat. 20°38′ N; Long. 86°20’E) 

 

Ratnagiri literally translates as the “Jewelled Hill” or the “Hill of jewels”. This Buddhist monastic settlement is located on top of the Ratnagiri hill of the Asia Hill ranges at Ratnagiri village in the Jajpur district of Orissa. Excavation here by ASI under D.Mitra has yielded the remains of an imposing stupa, the main stupa, three monasteries, a number of temples and small stupas. The overwhelming number of these minor stupas is an eloquent proof of its immense popularity and sanctity as a centre of Buddhism [6].

Ratnagiri flourished in religion, art and architecture from the 5th till the 13th century A.D. In spite of a steady decline thereafter, it continued to exist till the 16th century A.D. In the span of a few centuries, however, Ratnagiri achieved an importance comparable to the renowned Nalanda Mahavihara and became known enough to be mentioned in Tibetan Buddhist texts as a prominent seat of Tantric Buddhism. “Sri Ratnagiri Mahavihariya Aryabikshu Samghasya” is believed to have lodged and tutored ten thousand students from all over the world. The excavated remains of thousands of votive stupas attest to the theory.

Votive stupas in Ratnagiri

The excavated remains of the site lay spread across the lush greenery on the hill top overlooking the picturesque village settlements at the foothill. A small trek uphill from the entrance gate brings one into view of the main monastery and a stupa. The main monastery has a vast stone courtyard with small monastic cells lining the entire length of the porch. The ruins indicate that the courtyard might have been double storied. There is a huge standing frieze to the left of the entrance towards the rear end of the courtyard. Directly opposite to the entrance there is a spacious cell, perhaps serving as an altar, which houses a huge stone statue of Buddha in Bhumisparsha mudra. Flanking this statue on either side are two standing male stone figurines, holding a chamar in one hand and a lotus in the other. A giant Buddha head and several small figurines lay scattered along the stone corridor on either side of the stone door way. Sculptures depicting animal forms and sacred Tantric Buddhist deities adorn the courtyard in all directions. The clear blue autumn sky and the lush green backdrop painted an awe inspiring picture for the centuries old desolate ruins which seemed to have come alive in mute allocation.

Frieze in the monastery 1 of Ratnagiri

Buddha in Bhumisparsha Mudra

Standing figurine in the altar chamber

In the main courtyard of monastery 1 at Ratnagiri

At the time of my visit, Ratnagiri was receiving a facelift, with ASI employees brushing and scrubbing away the damp and the mould that had cropped up after the rains. Toothbrush, oxalic acid and distilled water were strewn all along the grounds and bamboo machans were erected at places to hoist the labourers. It seemed almost right in bowing my head to go below a bamboo framework that stood at the stone entrance. With humility I entered this ancient seat of learning. The vastness of the courtyard beneath the open sky struck me as did the giant Buddha head right beside the door. The sculptures along the portico revealed the amazing skill of the residents with a chisel and a hammer and the amalgamation of art and techniques of various nations under the banner of a common religion. With my limited knowledge, I could discern Ceylonese and South-east Asian influences in the figures and shapes. Intricacy was absent but the sculptures looked lively. The altar at the rear end of the courtyard had a narrow entrance and a low roof. The seated Buddha figure, towering over my head, somehow, had a humbling effect. You could not help feeling small standing there in that sombre somnolence.

Lion head with a distinctive Ceylonese influence

ASI hired labourers at restoration work in Ratnagiri

Ratnagiri mahavihara grounds

The ground between the monasteries and the stupas was dominated by huge trees of varied kinds. Sitting beneath a banyan tree between my rounds around the site, I realised why ancient people took pains in building religious establishments at higher elevations which common people would have found difficult to access. The obvious answer would be to avoid the crowd. The more significant answer could however be obtained after a short trek around the hill from one monastery to another under the midday sun. Appreciation of anything good and propitious can only be whole after an arduous enterprise. A trek uphill seems worthwhile in the welcome shade of the banyan. Searching for and attaining enlightenment is complete only when it is preceded by a gruelling life. Situating monasteries in inaccessible locations perhaps served to remind the seeker of this truth.

Thousands of votive stupas unearthed at Ratnagiri reveal the tenacity of the resident pupils who had to customarily sculpt one stupa each during their stay at the university. A present day student in the presence of proof of such perseverance will quite naturally feel humbled. What did they achieve, the students of those times, by spending long hours poring over a block of stone, smoothening it with chisels and etching praises of their sponsors on the surface? They could not even sign their own creations, and all the stupas looked same at first glance. So what was the use of such meaningless, selfless toil? My limited understanding suggests reflection.

Votive stupa with engraved Tara in a seated posture

We, the products of a made easy generation do not know how to reflect. We are instructed to be prompt in our thoughts and actions. This honed alacrity, although helpful in solving MCQs, makes us poor rational thinkers and we reason less before we act. It’s no wonder the crime rate today is off the charts. People of old were slow, yes, but they had steady reflexes and a rational logic. And what better way to teach patience than by channelizing young strength into stone cutting? By confining young adrenaline spiked blood into performing laborious tasks that took up most of their waking time, the authorities, perhaps, also effectively suppressed potential subversive activities.

Such serenity, as I found in Ratnagiri, must have made attaining enlightenment easy. I believe that man is true only in the presence of nature.  The vastness of clear blue skies and the freshness of foliage, somehow, have the same innocence of a newborn, and I strongly believe that no man can lie straight faced in front of them. Ratnagiri, with its lush green vegetation and wide sloping grounds overlooking the misty paddy fields seems to emanate purity and tranquillity. The tantric Buddhists of ancient India chose wisely their seat of spiritual illumination.

Flowers of the grass in autumn morning dew

 

Udayagiri    (Lat.20° 38′ 45″ N and Long 86° 16′ 25″ E)

 

Stone sentinel stands in welcome at Udayagiri

The road that leads to Ratnagiri gives off a diversion towards the left a couple of kilometres ahead of the excavated site. This diversion runs for one and a half kilometres before it reaches the excavated ruins of the Udayagiri Tantric Buddhist centre.  Like its counterpart in Ratnagiri, Udayagiri campus was also constructed on a hilltop. The remains of the site lay scattered on the foothill and along the slopes of the Udayagiri hill.

A huge stone step well at the foothill welcomes visitors to the site. Green scum covers the water surface in the well which appeared pretty deep. Like all step wells, this one too was an efficient air conditioner, a fact it displayed by sending a cold waft across my face. There is a small temple beside the well within its compounds which I think was a later addition.

Stone step well at Udayagiri

A narrow hill path leads off from the well towards the main excavated site. Flowering trees lined this path. ASI had been engaged in maintenance work in Udayagiri as well when I visited. Stone cutters were engaged in shaping white sandstone into precise blocks for restoration work. The resounding thud of the hammer on the chisel seemed to resurrect the bygone era when hundreds of pupils and monks spent long days carving religion into stone. It was almost as if Udayagiri had woken up from a centuries old slumber to the same everyday life.

Chaitya-stupa complex at Udayagiri

Udayagiri specialised in Chaityas. The main chaitya-stupa complex dated back to the 8th century A.D. and has been “identified as ‘Madhavapura Mahavihara’ on the basis of epigraphical findings”. [7]

The excavations has exposed a stone paved floor in front of the excavated monastery, the main drain of the monastery extending towards north¸ a large stone platform measuring 14.05 m x 13.35 made of seven courses in ashlar masonry approached through a flight of steps devised with a chandrasila on the north. Over the stone platform was discovered an apsidal chaitya-griha made of stones and bricks enshrining a stupa made of finely dressed stones which was originally plastered. Over the apsidal platform after the disuse of the chaityagriha, another brick-built chaitya-griha was found erected retaining the same stupa, facing the same east direction. The shrine was provided with gavakshas suggested by discovery of pieces of decorated stone jali worked with three-hooked snake motif………….. Altogether 14 stupas built of different sizes of bricks with mud mortar were discovered which are datable from the beginning of the 1st century A.D. to c 12th century A.D. A good number of stone inscriptions datable from 5th -13th cent A.D are also recovered.
A long stone paved pathway, votives stupa made of stone and a brick built residential complex comprising of six rooms and a courtyard was also discovered to the east of the chaitya-griha along with household appliances
.[8]

Monastic cells at Udayagiri

From a nice little observation point beneath a tree on top of the hill, a wide panoramic view of the monastery site can be obtained. Rolling hills strewn with ancient relics can be a very soothing sight for the eyes and the soul. Flocks of bee-eaters swirled over head quibbling; then landed on top of a chaitya with complete disregard for the basic tenet of Buddhism, Ahimsa. Two goats, munching on ficus leaves, kept me company as I sat hypnotized by a solemn tranquillity. Udayagiri defined Peace.

Shakyamuni

 

Lalitgiri        (Lat.20° N and Long 86° E)

 

 

Archway to Lalitgiri

Chandikhol lies 33 kilometres to the north of Cuttack on NH 5. Here, NH 5A branches off towards the east and continues all the way to Paradeep. The road to Ratnagiri and Udayagiri branches off from NH 5A to the left while Lalitgiri lies a little ahead on the right. There’s an archway on the metalled road that leads to the site, welcoming visitors. “The earliest Buddhist Complex dating back to the 1st century AD, Lalitgiri forms an important node of the Diamond Triangle i.e. Lalitgiri (in present Cuttack district) and Ratnagiri and Udayagiri (in present Jajpur district)”. [9]

Excavation works carried out here have brought to surface the ruins of a wonderful brick monastery with beautiful carvings, a temple with bow shaped arches, 4 monasteries and a huge stupa. The Buddhist treasures unearthed from here also include a large number of gold & silver articles, a stone container, earthern pot and traces of Kushana dynasty and Brahmi script. A massive image of the Buddha is a unique find; the image has pursed lips, long ears and wide forhead. There are numerous Mahayana sculptures consisting of colossal Buddha figures, huge Boddhisattva statues, statues of Tara and Jambhala. Almost all of these exhibits have an inscription on them. The architectural remnants found in Lalitgiri remind one of the Gandhar & Mathura craftsmenship”. [10]

Lalitgiri Buddhist Vihar looks more like a sanctuary than an archaeological site. From the entrance at the foothill to the main monastery site on the hill top, the entire area is forested and desolate. I, however, encountered a herd of grazing cows and a single courting bull which stood majestically supervising his harem. Although I was apprehensive of his sinister looking headgear, he let me photograph him in peace. Lalitgiri, apparently, could infuse ahimsa in all living souls, man or animal.

A majestic bull on the grounds at Lalirgiri

Restoration work at Lalitgiri

ASI was at work in Lalitgiri as well, scrubbing away the mould and algae accumulated over the monsoon on the remains of the stupa and the monasteries. It seems that with each new excavation work, more and more ancient treasures are being unearthed form Lalitgiri, which seems to hide numerous secrets beneath its green turfs all over the hill. Haphazardly strewn plinths, stone busts, engravings and statuettes greet one to this ancient archaeological site situated, literally, in the lap of nature. The antiquity of Lalitgiri is also evident in its ancient trees that have stood witness to the tides of time that have swept over this venerable seat of illumination. Some of the trees have grown prop roots that have replaced the main trunk over time. Underneath such a tree, I found Buddha laid in eternal sleep, peacefully carved in stone.

Buddha entering Nirvana

Strange etchings on a column in Lalitgiri

Some strange etchings on a stone column looked very much like the astronomical signs ancient Aztecs used. I am no authority, but could it be possible that ancient Mesoamerican cultural influence spread as far as India during the 5th century A.D.? Perhaps, symbols for geometry and astronomy are the same across all the civilisations of old.

A dog saw me to the gate on my way back. Quietly leading the way, it descended the hill, navigating my course around fallen logs and rocks. It was gone, however, when I looked around with a biscuit to give as a token of my gratitude. Non-violence, renunciation and peace seem to reign supreme in Lalitgiri even after hundreds of years’ of reclusion.

Along the path of illumination

Reflections

Have you seen an overcast sky painted bluish-black with dark rain clouds upon a backdrop of wavy green fields? How can you describe the profound calm that prevails there? How can anybody exemplify awe?

These three ancient archaeological sites, once revered seats of learning, of enlightenment, has inspired in me an admiration so deep I find it difficult to fathom. It is true that evidence of excellence of the ancient human mind can be found in many places of our country. Some, perhaps, even surpass these in architecture and importance. There are other Tantric Buddhist sites in India that have contributed to the evolution of Buddhism as a faith and promoted Indian culture. Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri, unquestionably did the same, as the archaeological museum at Ratnagiri, through its 3000 plus excavated artefacts displayed in four elaborate galleries, shall prove to any inquirer. These facts undoubtedly intensify my esteem for the three campuses of the ancient Puspagiri University.  However, these three sites shall always have my admiration for the beautiful harmony with which creations by man and nature are showcased complementing each other. It seems as if nature, painstakingly created a background for the ruins of the stupas and the monasteries with its sloping terrains and opulent greenery. I wonder, whether the founding fathers of the Puspagiri mahavihara deliberately chose these three mesmerizing locations for establishing their seat of illumination, for, if God is in everything beautiful, He must have His abode here.

TAMASO MA JYOTIR GAMAYA

References:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tantric_buddhism
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tantric_buddhism
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tantric_buddhism
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puspagiri_University
  5. http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2204/stories/20050225001308600.htm
  6. http://asi.nic.in/asi_exca_imp_orissa.asp
  7. http://asi.nic.in/asi_exca_2005_orissa.asp
  8. http://asi.nic.in/asi_exca_2005_orissa.asp
  9. http://www.orissatourism.gov.in/new/lalitgiri.html
  10. http://www.buddhist-tourism.com/countries/india/temples-monuments/lalitgiri.html
  11. Map : http://www.art-and-archaeology.com/india/udkg/bhuregion.jpg

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